Bryan Caplan  

The Flight from Intelligence, or That Which Must Not Be Named

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This cracked me up:

SAT scores have been interpreted in a number of different ways, both by the test's designers themselves (Educational Testing Service) and by college administrators, high school counselors, the popular press, and researchers in fields such as education and psychology. Indeed, even the name of the test has been repeatedly changed and reinterpreted over the years. It was introduced in 1901 as the Scholastic Achievement Test, purporting to measure the level of achievement attained by prospective college students. After considerable development (and growing popularity), it was renamed the Scholastic Aptitude Test in 1941 to emphasize the fact that it measures the ability to succeed in college. After the rise of "coaching courses," which demonstrated that students could successfully raise their test scores, the test was rename the Scholastic Assessment Test in 1991. Finally, in 1994, the test was reduced to its initials: "Please note that SAT is not an initialism. It does not stand for anything"(College Board, 1994, as cited in Harper, 2002). (emphasis mine) As of 2005, the current version of the SAT was labeled the SAT Reasoning Test, which, according to the Educational Testing Service, assesses "reasoning ability" and not intelligence.

Despite the test maker's claim that the SAT is not an intelligence test, recent research suggests that the SAT measures something very close to general mental ability.

It's amazing to see how much mental effort the world has spent trying to avoid the concept of intelligence. I'm tempted to call it an ostrich mentality - "If we don't look at intelligence, it won't exist." But that's too charitable. The semantic contortions of the ETS reflect a paranoid word mysticism straight out of H.P. Lovecraft's Cthulhu mythos: "Don't say its name. You might open the gate from its world to ours."

Update: My wife, whose literary tastes are a little less Gothic than mine, points out that an even better analogy is to Harry Potter's Voldemort - "He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named."

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COMMENTS (16 to date)
General Specific writes:

Me thinks we're simply looking at a cautious reaction (and overreaction) to what might be called mental imperialistic thinking, which was the norm for much of history--we (particular in the west) are the smart ones and they (usually with darker skin) are the not-so-brights.

Using the term "intelligence" seems fine to me, but why not qualify it, because it's a fact that many so-called intelligent people ain't too bright.

E.g. the SAT tests one type of intelligence, in particular the aptitude for studying for and taking tests.

Brad Hutchings writes:

If I were the ETS, I would change SAT to be short for "Saturday", as in how many SATs (and FRI nights) will you totally blow during your teenage years due to this stupid test?

My favorite story of SAT tyranny from my high school days was the fall of my junior year. I had signed up to take the PSAT one Saturday and the night before, went to a movie with my girlfriend and some other friends. This is before cell phones, and I was supposed to meet my folks after the football game, but they weren't where I expected. Anyway, found a pay phone at the movie theatre and called my Dad and told him I'd be home at 1:30 or so. Grounded for a month. Get my tired @$$ up to be at this PSAT thing at 8:00 am. Results come in the mail a month later. 800 (i.e perfect) on the math 6 something verbal. Freakin thing doesn't even count for squat, cost me a month of doing anything but school at sports. I just hope that if I have kids I'll be wise enough to teach them to not care about that dumb test.

mark gould writes:

I think that it is interesting that the had changed the name of the SAT that many times. I had no idea that it was named anything else. In my opinion, the SAT should not be counted as much as it is. The SAT plays a large roll in students lives who are planning on attending college, and if their scores are not up to par, it narrows their chances to become accepted into a college or university.

Ibrahim Nur writes:

Steve Sailer should be getting wind of this blog entry by now.

David Tufte writes:

FWIW: In Indo-European languages, the common word for "bear" is often based on a euphemism, such as "the brown one". It's thought this is because saying something else might cause a bear to appear.

Clearly, this must apply to people who try to subvert the use of the word "intelligence". They're afraid that if they say it, someone smarter than them will show up.

TGGP writes:

General Specific, the SAT has a fairly significant g-loading, so it is basically an IQ test in disguise. IQ predicts a great number of things, including not only academic achievement but success in various job (tomato-grading excepted) and the likelihood of injuring or accidentally killing yourself. Though these tests were designed by Dead White Men, east asians have among the highest scores on them (a full standard deviation above the white european norm).

General Specific writes:


I don't contest your points at all. But accepting them, I can still understand--based upon historical conditions--the hesitance of some or many to use the word "intelligence." In addition, I understand the arguments of someone like Stephen Jay Gould, namely that measures of intelligence alone ignore other mental attributes.

Having a daughter currently taking the SATs, and also living in a community with a large number of Asians, I am aware of the performance of Asians on tests such as this as well as their intense focus on AP classes (as well as their predominance in other cultural matters--my daughter plays violin and wife is heavily involved in local classical music).

But I'm still not sure to what degree these tests test intelligence and what degree they test the ability to take tests, to prepare for tests, the willingness of the parents to fork over $1,000s to prep for the test, and the environment in the home. True, some of these pre-test matters are also a function of some sort of intelligence, e.g. one could say a more intelligent person prepares for tests, except that a highly intelligent person can very likely prepare less, so a person with prepatory-intelligence can compare well with the highly intelligent person by prepping well. So what are we measuring?

That's all. In the end, we need measures to rank people, but I've always been concerned about a single number that is supposed to tell me a lot about a person. From complexity to simplicity, a multivariate human being to a single number.

So I understand the hesitance. And don't completely understand those who are too concerned about the hesitance. I suppose it gives them something to blog about.

From my own academic experience, I found the people who were too focused on grades and numbers to often be--shallow, often not interested in the subject matter at hand. And I know people who never tested well who went on to start companies, doing technically creative work, and people who did test well who went on to become--academics--teaching the next generation of test takers.

Cchris Collins writes:

I have always thought that was to much overall emphasis on the SAT. Now I see that test is not only stupid but the name is also. First of all the test does not even test you on what you have learned, it test you on what you should be able to do in collage and now the name SAT does not even mean anything. That just too funny to me.

Heather writes:

I do find it interesting how upset a large number of people become labeling something as intelligence. I have had discussions with people who insist on statements like "There are many different types of intelligence," and "Anyone can learn x if they try."

That said, I also know a number of foreign students who take the SATs or GREs to attend school here and I suspect the verbal portion of their score is skewed low due to the fact that they speak English as a second language. This will throw off the ability of the tests to accurately measure and individual's IQ, although it probably does a good job at anticipating their ability to succeed in college.

Carla Smith writes:

I would like to add another great analogy from the wonderful movie by M. Night Shyamalan, "The Village" in which the village people refer to the "monsters that enter their village against their will" as "Those Whose Name We Do Not Speak." But I was quite amused with Caplan and his wife and the analogies they came up with as well.

It has always been sad to me how society has begun to try to impress upon us that "people are dumb." Yes, there are a lot of "dumb people" out there, or as I like to refer to them as, "people who do not use their God given common sense." However, there is much brillance and intelligence surrounding us daily that "they" try to make us ignore or not see.

What about the brilliant scientists, or even economists for that matter, that daily come up with new and amazing ideas that will forever change our way of living? What about the inventors that are daily creating new gadgets for us to use around the household or out and about? And that is only the tip of the iceburg. There is constantly so much going on behind the scenes by the most brilliant minds in America, that we could not even begin to imagine, except possibly for those of us that do use our intelligence daily.

The SAT name change reminds me also of another great movie: "The Incredibles" by Disney/Pixar where Mr. Incredible speaks of his son's "graduation" from the 4th grade to the 5th grade in which he says something along the lines of, "I'm tired of celebrating mediocrity!"
The SAT name change is yet another way that Political Correctness is ruining America by trying to help those who do not want help and attempting to make us all tolerant of lazy people. These same people for which the SAT name was changed, are the same that are taught or being shown that "you don't have to work for anything in life, just wait for the government to give it to you." I have a quote on the back of my "gas guzzling SUV" which states: "Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for YOURSELF."

I wonder if we could use the Elasticity of Demand as a final example here. This law measures the "sensitivity of consumers to changes in price." Perhaps in this case, we have found ourselves measuring the sensitivity to students who do so poorly on the exam, that we must change the name to protect "the innocent."

Holly writes:

After reading this, I was shocked to know that the name of the test had been changed so many times. When I took the SAT I did very well, however I honestly didn't think it had anything to do with what I learned in high school. I am a sophomore in college right now, and I still don't think I have done anything close to what was on the SAT. I don't think that one specific test can determine how "intelligent" someone is. People can be intelligent in many different ways, especially other than what one test has on it.

Troy Camplin writes:

Recent research in epistemological beliefs of students suggest that it is a better assessment of college success than even intelligence per se. Thus a measure of complexity of thinking rather than intelligence (they are quite different things) -- or perhaps, along with intelligence -- would be a better assessment tool. Of course, that still does not address the reason people don't like the idea of intelligence assessment: intelligence differences imply that the egalitarian model of the world is just plain wrong.

Kimmitt writes:

Speaking as a person who does fine on intelligence tests and believes very much that some people are smarter than others, the reason I don't like intelligence tests is that they have a nasty history which is replete with racism, sexism, and colonialism.

My understanding is that high school GPA is a far better predictor of college success than the SAT, and it is given near-exclusively to persons who already have GPAs, so it is not particularly useful as a predictive tool.

The PSATs are important, but not as predictors -- they act as gatekeepers for National Merit status, which is necessary for access to most merit-based scholarships. Rich kids (or kids of folks familiar with the system) know this and study appropriately. Poor kids are generally not informed of this, just another way the class structure reinforces itself.

I'm thankful Aubrey de Gray and Nick Bostrom aren't wasting as much time on this neverending dialectical performance as you are. Hello, we're dying. Let's start with first principles. What's the economic waste due to people "trying to avoid the concept of intelligence"? How does it compare to other areas of economic waste you could be focusing this same time and energy on? What effect does it have on our ability to solve aging and general existential risk?

I think these same questions can be applied to the spate of posts on political correctness.

jb writes:

Hastur! Hastur! Hastur!


Dr. Troy Camplin writes:

The issues of intelligence are very relevant. The ways we have tried to avoid the issue have resulted in the education mess we are in. We have tried to do away with differences in education, resulting in the marginalizing of the slowest and smartest amongst us. There is too much of a drop out rate at either end. When this happens to the smartest, the economy and the culture suffer, and there's more crime. When it happens to the slowest, there's more crime. Our educational models do not allow students to develop at their own rates, and that hurts the economy.

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